Vets key to Chiefs’ rebuilding project
By JOHN MARSHALL AP Sports Writer
RIVER FALLS, Wis.(AP)—Mike Vrabel(notes) lingered on the practice field, trading blows with defensive line coach Tim Krumrie like Rock’em Sock’em robots, pausing every few seconds to get instruction before wailing away again.
Most of his younger teammates had already headed to the locker room and peeled off their pads, yet there was Vrabel, legs weary, sweat pouring off his chin, a 13-year veteran still trying to get better.
Chiefs coach Todd Haley couldn’t help but smile at the image.
For a young team, coming off the worst season in franchise history, this was exactly what the first-year coach had in mind when he brought in Vrabel and all those other veterans to provide the foundation for the massive rebuilding project in Kansas City.
“As young a group as we had, we just felt it real important to get guys in here to help kind of guide this young group because we can only do so much as a coaching staff,” Haley said this week at training camp. “As I’ve said, a picture’s worth a thousand words, so if you put a picture of Mike Vrabel out there doing it the way it has to be done, you know it’s going to accelerate the learning for everyone.”
Herm Edwards tried to rebuild the Chiefs, convincing the front office the only way to get better was to tear the roster down and rebuild it with youth. The Chiefs won two games in 2008.
Kansas City fired general manager Carl Peterson in the offseason, replaced him with Scott Pioli, co-architect of New England’s dynasty with Bill Belichick. Pioli cut Edwards loose and brought in the no-nonsense Haley, who built the offense that helped take Arizona to the Super Bowl last season.
Pioli and Haley kept some of the youngsters from the previous regime, adding a few more through their first draft together. What they needed: experienced players to teach.
So this offseason, the Chiefs sprinkled the roster with proven veterans.
They picked up Vrabel, a three-time Super Bowl champion, in the deal that brought quarterback Matt Cassel(notes) from New England. Mike Brown(notes), a former Pro Bowl safety from Chicago, signed as a free agent. Zach Thomas(notes), the longtime anchor of Miami’s defense, signed after a year in Dallas and moved back to his natural position of middle linebacker.
Mike Goff(notes) signed on after five years of clearing holes for LaDainian Tomlinson(notes) in San Diego and 11 seasons overall. Receiver Bobby Engram(notes) came aboard after 13 successful seasons with Seattle and Chicago. Kansas City kept stockpiling vets in training camp, bringing in Amani Toomer(notes), a crafty receiver who played 13 years for the New York Giants.
Their task? Set an example by doing what they’ve always done.
“There’s a reason why players are what they are,” Haley said. “These guys that we brought in, whether it was through trade or free agency … they prepare the way they have to prepare, they practice the way they have to practice, they work on the fundamentals, they don’t think they have all the answers.”
There should be plenty of teaching opportunities.
Kansas City entered training camp with 46 players who have three years experience or less, including 21 rookies. Of the remaining players, just 10 were around when the Chiefs were last in the playoffs three years ago. The last connection to the 13-3 season in 2003, tight end Tony Gonzalez(notes), was traded to Atlanta in the offseason.
The youth movement hasn’t worked out the past two seasons. The Chiefs won four games in 2007 and a franchise-low two last year, which would have been the worst in the NFL had the Lions not put up the first 0-16 record in league history.
Clearly, there’s plenty of room for improvement.
Haley has done his part, essentially starting over, putting the focus on the details and fundamentals. Make a mistake, you’re going to hear about it. Jump offside, even in a drill, you’re running, no matter who you are.
Pressure from above only goes so far, though. To see a veteran out there giving it his all in a blocking drill or staying after practice to work on hand positioning, it can’t help but make an impression.
And so far, through the can’t-really-tell-that-much days of training camp, the young guys seem to be catching on, willing to listen to those with the flecks of gray in their beards.
“I don’t know how they were last year,” Thomas said. “Coming in, when I saw that they won two games last year, I thought there would be a lot of guys that weren’t motivated, a lot of slackers, things like that. I haven’t seen that.”
But don’t confuse this with some kind of after-school, old folks mentoring program. The Chiefs brought in these veterans because they believe they can still play.
Goff has started 80 consecutive games, helping Tomlinson rush for more than 1,100 yards each of the past three seasons. Thomas was second on the Cowboys in tackles last season at 35. Vrabel made it to the Pro Bowl in 2007, Engram had 94 catches for more than 1,000 yards the same year.
Their goal is to play and teach along the way.
“It’s a two-way street,” Engram said. “I’m excited about the opportunity I’m going to have here. And with all the veterans they’ve brought in, these guys are proven, they’ve won, and hopefully we can show these young guys what it takes to win in this league on a consistent basis.”
The Chiefs are counting on it.